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Tourism pressures dolphin populations -

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Tourism pressures dolphin populations

Reporter: Sarah Clarke

KERRY O'BRIEN: Dolphin watching is big business these days, with tourists from around the world
paying millions of dollars each year just to get a glimpse of the ocean mammals.

The New South Wales coastal community of Port Stephens boasts the most lucrative dolphin tourism
industry in the country, but unlike other tourist meccas such as Monkey Mia in Western Australia,
there are no laws in place to keep the tourist boats from getting too close.

Researchers say there's already evidence that the dolphins are under stress from all the attention,
which could have a dramatic effect on dolphin numbers in the future.

Sarah Clarke reports.

WOMAN: Amazing, that you can see them in their habitat. They're not in no zoo, no glass thing above
you; it's where they live.

WOMAN: This is the first time I have ever seen dolphins alive in the sea, and I found it just

FRANK FUTURE (DOLPHIN WATCHING ASSOCIATION): Look, I think it's unique in this world to see wild
dolphins in their natural environment just gathering around the boats, and it is an opportunity to
see something that you won't see very often anywhere in the world.

SARAH CLARKE: Frank Future represents a lucrative industry which has grown from a two-boat
operation into a 15-strong fleet in little more than a decade. Over the same period, the number of
passengers taking dolphin cruises has exploded to a quarter-of-a-million per year, making Port
Stephens the busiest dolphin-watching port in the southern hemisphere.

FRANK FUTURE: It's a $50 million industry in Port Stephens alone every year, so those dolphins are
golden dolphins, so we want to look after them and make sure they're here for everybody to enjoy.

SARAH CLARKE: Elsewhere around Australia, the whale and dolphin-watching industry is tightly
regulated, with licensed operators required not to get too close to their quarry. Monkey Mia in
Western Australia and Port Phillip Bay in Victoria are two of the better-known spots.

But here in Port Stephens, there are no laws to regulate this booming industry, and some fear that
the appetite for tourist dollars could be harming the dolphins.

SIMON ALLEN (MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY): I think dolphin tourism can be sustainable here, but I think
that it's most certainly not managed for sustainability at the moment.

SARAH CLARKE: Marine biologist Simon Allen has monitoring the dolphin population of Port Stephens
for four years, and he believes the relentless traffic and the number of tourist boats has already
had an impact on their behaviour.

SIMON ALLEN: The other important thing we're seeing here is not only a serious decrease in the
amount of resting behaviour but also groups splitting into subgroups. So if you are causing a
change in that social grouping by driving boats into the middle of them and splitting them into
subgroups, then you are potentially affecting them in the longer-term.

SARAH CLARKE: Studies suggest that the long-term implications could be even more serious, with
females producing less calves and whole pods moving away.

SIMON ALLEN: I guess that is the worst-case scenario, that there's just too much boating traffic
and the animals decide that the habitat is so far degraded by all this noise and boating activity
that it's no longer a productive or a safe environment for them.

SARAH CLARKE: While Port Stephens has a voluntary code specifying a minimum 30-metre distance and
limiting the number of daily trips, its observance is not mandatory.

FRANK FUTURE: Most people, you know, try to abide by it. I mean, everybody makes a few mistakes,
and as I say, it's lucky the dolphins are forgiving, but the intention is to stand by our code of

SARAH CLARKE: Now the New South Wales Government has drafted legislation to enforce the 30-metre
rule, with tough penalties for those who break the law.

DR TONY FLEMING (NATIONAL PARKS AND WILDLIFE SERVICE): Better off making clear rules now that
everyone knows that they've got to follow and they're in place now, and we can watch as the
industry grows, and hopefully the animals will be protected.

SARAH CLARKE: But the decision to bring in the law has divided the port, and not everyone agrees on
the need for change.

PETER WOODS (DOLPHIN CRUISE OPERATOR): It's making criminals out of people who are just doing a
day's work. If you read the consultation paper, there's fines of 1,000 units, whatever a unit may
be, two years in jail, and that's just for watching a dolphin. If you go closer than 30 metres,
then you're subject to that offence.

SARAH CLARKE: Peter Woods has been in the dolphin-watching business for seven years and runs trips
all year round. He believes the operators already act responsibly, and he denies that the increased
boating activity is having a negative impact on these mammals.

SARAH CLARKE: Are you seeing the animals stressed, though, at the moment?

PETER WOODS: Not at all, not at all, because we see different pods all the time. It's not a case of
going to the same dolphins every day or every cruise.

SARAH CLARKE: Linda and Owen Griffiths are at the other end of the spectrum.

LINDA GRIFFITHS (FORMER DOLPHIN CRUISE OPERATOR): During the summer season, we would see 12 to 15
new calves born, and they'd be with their mothers out in the area where most of the dolphin
watching is being done, where you don't see that at all now.

SARAH CLARKE: In fact, the Griffiths felt so strongly about the situation that they gave up their
dolphin-watching business two years ago, simply because they believed they were witnessing first
hand this change in the dolphins' behaviour as the intensity of the boating activity grew.

OWEN GRIFFITHS (FORMER DOLPHIN CRUISE OPERATOR): The dolphins would be all over you like a rash. It
was a new thing for them and they'd come up and, with passengers on the boat, if the passengers
waved their arms over the side, they'd lay on their side, they'd look up at you, they'd interact,
they'd swim on the bow of the boat. You don't see that anymore.

SARAH CLARKE: They shot this footage a decade ago, showing the mammals playing, mating and
socialising. But they say that constant interaction between dolphins and humans means that this
behaviour is now rare. They're also concerned that, even under the new rules, operators still don't
need a licence and the flotilla of boats will continue to grow.

OWEN GRIFFITHS: Every time they turn round, there's a boat there, and they get browned off about
the whole deal.

SARAH CLARKE: It's a question that's been hotly debated worldwide but is now being put to the test
in Port Stephens, and this multimillion-dollar industry is being made to face the question of
whether the current intensity of tourism and these inquisitive mammals can co-exist sustainably.

OWEN GRIFFITHS: Nobody goes out there to do these dolphins any damage, but with ignorance, they

FRANK FUTURE: The fascination with whales and dolphins and animals won't go away. I think we're
becoming more sensitive as people in the world. We want to know those animals are around. So, no,
I'd put my money on the fact this industry will be going for a long time to come.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Sarah Clarke with that report.